The State Security Agency (SSA) was hacked days before the start of the Brics summit in Johannesburg in August.
That’s according to a weekend report in Sunday World – and South Africans have heard nothing more about it. In fact, the official policy may be to keep the whole incident under wraps.
After repeated calls by TechCentral to various government spokespeople, eventually the spokesman for minister in the presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni – under whom the SSA falls – Sipho Mbele said on Tuesday that the department had “no comment” to offer.
The Sunday World article made several damning allegations, including that sensitive and compromising information was leaked. The report said a senior official, Joe Mbhambhu, was made to take the fall for the leak, despite not being responsible for the SSA cyber unit.
The newspaper quoted a senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity, who said it constituted treason and espionage. “They strongly suspect the hackers received a helping hand from people within the agency,” the source was quoted as saying. The source also claimed they were told to keep the whole incident a “top secret because it was embarrassing”.
Media Monitoring Africa director William Bird said the official response to the alleged hack is deeply worrying. “Just because the agency is dealing with state secrets does not mean it can operate in secret,” he said. ”It’s outrageous! While we are still part of a constitutional democracy, we have to act like one, and there are rules and responsibilities.”
Bird said the incident represented a “major security breach” and could not just be swept under the carpet. “We’re up against countries like the US, China and Russia, which have massive budgets for cyber warfare, so we would be naïve to think we are safe.
“These things do happen – even to us as individuals – but it is important for the agency to take the public into their confidence. This is an extraordinary approach to an alleged breach of South Africa’s security and we have every right to demand to know what steps the agency intends to follow to mitigate this risk,” he said.
Bird was also concerned about alleged insider collusion. “What are the plans to mitigate and prevent future incidents like these, and have plans been updated to prevent such a breach recurring?” he asked. “We must demand to know what steps are being taken.”
The SSA has a long history of cloak-and-dagger dealings. Jacob Zuma, president from 2009 to 2018, established the State Security Agency in 2009 as an amalgamation of the National Intelligence Agency, the domestic intelligence service and the South African Secret Service.
“Powerful individuals aligned to former President Zuma, presumably at his behest, repurposed the institution to help him maintain his grip on power. It was one of many institutions that were repurposed for improper personal or political gain during his tenure,” Jane Duncan, professor of digital society at the University of Glasgow, wrote in March.
But in 2022, President Cyril Ramaphosa promised to reform the agency and return the separate domestic and foreign branches, each led by its own director-general. So far, the only move in this direction has been the appointment of former deputy energy minister Thembisile Majola as director-general on 1 March on a year’s contract.
At the time, Ramaphosa said Majola’s appointment was an important part of work to stabilise the country’s intelligence services. She is the first permanent DG of the agency since Arthur Fraser left in 2018. – © 2023 NewsCentral Media